Gum arabic is a natural gum made from the hardened sap of trees native to the Middle East and parts of Western Asia. Food manufacturers often use it as a stabilizer in food and drinks that are designed to have a long shelf life, and the soft drink industry is one of the world’s largest consumers. The gum also has uses outside of the kitchen, particularly as an additive in art products and cosmetics, and it has traditionally also been an important part of ink-on-paper printing. Basically any task that requires binding different substances together or holding ingredients in a stable suspension can benefit from the addition of gum arabic.
Where it Comes From
Although referred to as a “gum,” this substance is little more than hardened tree sap that has been filtered and processed to remove dust and other particulates. It is sticky, tacky, and good at holding things together, though, which is where the gum association comes from.
Two different types of trees make sap that can turn into gum arabic, namely the Acacia Senegal and the Acacia Seyal. Both of these are native to the Arabic Peninsula, which many scholars believe is why the gum is known as “arabic.” Most modern production happens in Africa, though, and commercial gum farms are most popular in Sudan, Somalia, and Senegal. The gum is known locally in these places as chaar gund, char goond, meska, or gum acacia, though it almost always shows up on ingredient labels and product information sheets by the more standardized “gum arabic” name.
The gum will form naturally when sap comes into contact with air, as happens when the heat of the desert cracks the tree trunks or when birds or other insects bore holes into the trees’ bark. Most commercial production involves more streamlined drilling and tapping efforts, though, and the sub-Saharan region has been given the moniker “the gum belt” for its harvesting activities. Harvesters, known in most places as “sap trappers,” stimulate sap flow by carefully stripping pieces of the bark once a year so as not to injure the tree or impair production. They are then able to extract the sap for approximately five weeks per year, and can usually go ten years per tree before the quality begins to decline.
Trappers scrape hardened sap off of the exposed trunk, then prepare it for sale by cleaning it and combining it with other collections. Hardened sap is almost completely dissolvable in water, and many farmers sell it to food and cosmetics manufacturers as a syrup. It can also be ground into a powder, sold as an oil, or refined down into rough chunks or pellets.
Popularity as a Food Additive
The gum is rich in both glycoproteins and polysaccarides which give it its characteristic sticky, glue-like consistency; they also make it a good stabilizer for food and beverages. Like gelatin and carrageenan, gum arabic can be used to bind food substances together, or to help different ingredients take on a uniform, even texture.
It is frequently used in soft drink syrups because of how easily it dissolves and stays stable in water, though it is popular in a number of foods, too. The gum can help chocolate candies keep a smooth consistency and resist melting, for instance, and it adds a desirable chewy texture to gummy candies, marshmallows, and a range of other small confections. Bakers often put it in icing and frosting to get a smooth finish, and it is frequently used in ice creams, particularly those that are low-fat; the gum’s binding properties can help it stay firm and scoop more easily. It doesn’t usually impact a food or drink’s taste at all, but it can make a variety of products more commercially appealing.
Acacia sap is high in dietary fiber, and people sometimes consume it on its own as a laxative or to improve digestive health. Some health food stores or pharmacies sell it as a supplement for this purpose, usually in capsule form. Medical professionals may also recommend taking it in small doses to reduce cholesterol, and some people believe that it may also aid in weight loss though there are very few studies backing this up.
In the communities where it grows, people often use the hardened sap as something of a cure-all for a variety of different ailments. People use it to help with stomach and intestinal problems, sore throats, eye issues, bleeding, and the common cold, to name just a few. In these cases, natural medicine experts or local healers often brew the sap into tea, or reduce it into a thick syrup that is eaten by the spoonful.
Nutritional and Health Concerns
Most government regulatory agencies around the world consider gum arabic to be generally safe for human consumption. Some people question its addition to processed foods, but unlike many other additives, it is not an artificially created compound and is not usually heavily refined before use. It doesn’t really have any significant nutritive value; it is basically calorie-neutral, and contains few if any vitamins or minerals. In most cases it is used in such small quantities that it doesn’t have much of an impact on the people who consume it. Of course, as with most things, consuming excessive quantities can be harmful, and often leads to intestinal trouble or stomach problems. In small amounts, though, the gum is generally recognized as harmless.
Manufacturers use the gum in a number of ways not related to human consumption, too. Traditional lithography and printing in many ways depends on the gum, particularly when it comes to inks and paper glue. Modern bookbinding and ink-jet printing doesn’t always make use of the gum in the same ways, but a lot of this depends on the individual bindery. Some photographers will also use the gum in their developing solutions to help fix images on photo paper, and powdered forms are popular with artists and textile makers for getting colored paints and pigments to set.
Liquid sap is sometimes also used to control viscosity in the pharmaceutical sector, and drug manufacturers will use it to get certain medicines to reach the right suspension and density. It can also be used in cosmetics, particularly liquid makeup products, and can help control the diffusion of scent in incense cones and oil candles. Shoe polish, postage stamps, and pyrotechnic operations are just a few of the other places the gum can be found in daily life.
Getting the gum from the local communities where it grows into the hands of the industry conglomerates who want to use it in these products isn’t always easy, though. The gum is a very important export for the countries that grow it, but claims of government corruption in many of these places has given rise to some scandals and suspected pricing problems. The sap is also a frequent target for smugglers who shuttle it across borders, often in hopes of selling it for a better price abroad.
Some human rights activists have also questioned the ethics of working conditions on certain tree plantations, as well. These disputes tend to be about the fairness of worker wages, the safety of sap trapping operations, and the age of the people working.